Ex-offenders light up the stage

Scarface, Brian de Palma's 1983 film starring Al Pacino as the violent gangster Tony Montana, has a cult following in Britain's prisons.

So when posters advertising a play inspired by the movie went up around HMP Birmingham, they proved so popular inmates stole them from the walls.

The performance itself, last Monday, was an even greater success. This week in Birmingham and Manchester members of the public have the opportunity to witness first hand the impact of the play, developed with prisoners as a way of encouraging them to reflect on contemporary gang culture.

In London, too, audiences have been thrilled by performances of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, adapted for the theatre by John Galati and performed by a company of 12 ex-prisoners from Wormwood Scrubs and Holloway.

The production, at the newly opened Only Connect theatre near King's Cross, is part of a project by the husband and wife team Emma and Danny Kruger, who see theatre as a way of helping offenders find housing and training when they leave jail.

Say Goodnight To The Bad Guy was developed by the Stoke-on-Trent arts organisation Rideout, which worked with prisoners to develop a script inspired by Scarface. It is now being performed by professional actors in prisons across the West Midlands.

Saul Hewish, co-director of Rideout, said: "We wanted to engage the prisoners in a discussion about the issues around gang culture, to look at what alternatives there are for people who have been involved in gangs. If you're someone whose attention span is short, who finds it difficult to sit down and learn things through reading and writing, drama is much more experiential and kinetic."

The play was received enthusiastically by Jonnet Middleton, creative skills curriculum leader at HMP Birmingham, who said: "There was so much interest that the guys stole the posters off the walls. There was a lot of buzz. Then when they saw the performance, they were totally transfixed."

Emma Kruger at Only Connect encourages ex-offenders to perform existing plays. "I elected to use plays that are epic or particularly poignant - Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath are such amazing stories and resonate. They're very enriching." Only Connect invites ex-offenders' partners and children to rehearsals and performances to create a family atmosphere.

The London-based Clean Break has used theatre to help women prisoners since it was founded in 1979 by two former offenders. Writers are invited to spend time in women's prisons and write a play inspired by their experience.

Its next production, This Wide Night by Chloe Moss - about the strong bonds that develop between women in prison and how these are tested on the outside - goes on tour in July.

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